That’s the emerging consensus, as the Washington Post reports:
President Obama travels to Henderson, Nev., on Sunday for a mission far more important than the usual swing-state campaign rally: He will huddle privately with senior aides for an intensive, three-day boot camp to prepare for the first presidential debate.
On Monday, Mitt Romney will do the same with his advisers in Denver, two days before the rivals take the stage at the University of Denver for a 90-minute faceoff focused on the economy.
With Obama assuming a small but clear lead in the polls with five weeks remaining in the race, the candidates’ willingness to nearly disappear from public view for 48 to 72 hours reflects the high stakes of the three October debates for both men.
Meanwhile, arguably the better debater on the Republican ticket, Rep. Paul Ryan, is busy…well, maybe not lowering expectations for Mitt Romney’s anticipated performance Wednesday night at the University of Denver, but certainly front-loading expectations in his special way:
“We’re running against an incumbent president,” Ryan told Fox News Sunday’s Chris Wallace when asked about conservatives saying Romney needs a “clear victory” at Wednesday’s debate. “We’re running against an incumbent president with incredible resources. But more importantly, I don’t think one event is going to make or break this campaign. Look, President Obama is a very – he’s a very gifted speaker. The man’s been on the national stage for many years, he’s an experienced debater, he’s done these kinds of debates before. This is Mitt’s first time on this kind of a stage.”
Wallace quickly reminded him that Romney did 23 debates during the long primary season… [Pols emphasis]
So much for that. But setting aside Ryan’s trademark mendacity, he makes a good point.
The fact is, our recollection of President Barack Obama’s 2008 debate performance against GOP nominee John McCain was that Obama was good, but by no means dominant–we don’t really think debates are Obama’s preferred form of interaction any more than Romney’s. In the GOP primary debates, there was a persistent sense that Romney was aiming, and succeeding, to simply appear more credible than his often-laughable opponents like Herman Cain and Rick Perry. Relative “presidential-ness” is an advantage Romney won’t enjoy against Obama.
But as a candidate tracking downward in most polls, Romney is the one with everything to gain or lose in these debates, especially Wednesday’s in Denver focused on economic policy. Short of a force majeure event in the month of October beyond anyone’s control, Romney is just about out of chances to reverse his present losing trajectory. Romney needs to go big in these debates, but not in a way that Obama will deconstruct right after with fact-checked authority. Given that so many of Romney’s most salient attacks have been ripped apart by independent fact-checkers, Obama’s ability to damningly call out these errors significantly restricts what Romney can say. Romney’s fastest ticket to losing is leaving viewers with the impression that nothing he said was true. Obama’s first priority is to facilitate exactly that.
Romney could of course lay out an alternative vision for the nation instead of attacking, but given the nature of Romney’s recent problems, as in his stated opinion of a little less than half the nation, it will be hard to avoid raising more questions than he answers. We’re not saying this as a backhanded attack; it’s a recognition that Romney has painted himself into a corner. We truthfully don’t know how he’s supposed to walk his current state of affairs back.
If Romney can make a truly fact-based, if inevitably less bombastic case against Obama in this debate, he could certainly help himself in a race that remains relatively close. The question will be, with Obama’s rebuttals immediately available, whether setting aside unsupportable attacks not grounded in fact leaves Mitt Romney with anything to work with.